New York Architecture Images- Midtown

Chanin Building


Sloan & Robertson  (René Chambellan and Jacques L. Delamarre for the lobby and the ornementation)


122 East 42nd Street  (southwest corner of Lexington Avenue)




Art Deco


Steel frame.  56 floors, 207m (680 feet) high. Cost: $14,000,000
The steel frame is clad in buff brick and terra cotta and it is set back in conformance with the 1916 Zoning Law. The facade illustrates the introduction of colored glass, stone and metal on the exterior of tall buildings. Materials such as bronze, Belgian marble and terra-cotta are used here in an inventive and exuberant way.


Office Building


  For more pictures of the lobby, see Art Deco Metalwork


Built in 1927-1929 for Irwin S. Chanin, one of the most notable developers in the city. 
The 56-storey, 207.5 m tall Art Deco building is typically set back from the limestone base. The top of the buff-brick tower sports elegant buttressing decor that is enhanced by illumination at night. The corners of the unornamented tower have protruding fins. At the lower end of the building, bas-reliefs of terra-cotta depicting animals and leaf themes run the whole length of lower facade. 

The lobby was designed by Jacques Delamarre to celebrate the "self-made" success of Irwin Chanin. The floor and screens are made of gilded bronze, with modernist decor motifs of workers and transports by the sculptor René Chambellan. Also the elevator doors and mailboxes are elaborately decorated. 

There was a private cinema theater on the 50th floor, as well as a viewing roof, neither of which is accessible anymore. Also a bus depot with a rotating turntable on the ground floor has been converted to other uses.

The Chanin Building is located at 122 east 42nd street and was completed in 1928, reaching a whopping height of 680 feet. This 56 story towers blunt buttressed crown became a symbol for New York's crushing modernist drive. The buff-brick, limestone, and terra-cotta tower is a fascinating synthesis of skyscraper styles. The giant limestone buttresses at the base and crown are a conscience reference to the skyscrapers stylistic origins in the gothic world. Its giant 680 foot shaft rises uninterrupted for 22 stories above a series od shallow setbacks. The thinness of this slab viewed from uptown or downtown, creates a classic Art Deco setback silhouette. This is a two in one solution which was copied also by the McGraw Hill Building, and Rockefeller Center. The crowns reverse is lit at night so that the buttresses are thrown into shadow, and the recesses are illuminated. 

This building, built as leaseable office space, the building presents itself as a high point of creation. A bronze frieze located at street level depicts it as the sea and the tower as land. Another frieze on the 4th floor of the facade proclaims itself as a building of the 2oth century. 

One of the first great examples of a building that uses the French-inspired art-deco motifs is the Chanin Building, located on the southwest corner of Lexington Avenue and Forty-second Street. The architect, Irwin Chanin, had built Garment Center loft buildings and a number of other buildings in New York. He planned this one for his own offices and as a speculative venture—that is, his private offices were on the top floor while the rest of the building was open office space. Construction began in 1927. 

Chanin trained at Cooper Union as an architect, but in 1927 he was not yet registered. He eventually became a registered architect, but that year he worked with the architectural firm of Sloan and Robertson. The firm had worked on the Fred French Building and was involved in many different office buildings in New York. Chanin worked with Sloan and Robertson to come up with a spectacular design (which is very closely modeled on Eliel Saarinen's plan for the Chicago Tribune Building) that features a massive, horizontal base, soaring setbacks, strong verticals, and buttresses. The building soars above the corner of Forty-second Street and Lexington Avenue, right down the block from Grand Central Terminal. And the light bounces off its façade. So this building was highly visible.

Besides being a spectacular ornament on the New York skyline, the building is filled with French-inspired ornamental detail. Chanin had visited Paris in 1925 and toured the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. He was so inspired by it that when he came back, he almost immediately started using these French-inspired forms. A building like the Chanin was designed not only to attract your attention from a distance but also to be both enjoyable and even educational on the ground floor. And it was designed so that on the lower stories it would attract not only pedestrians but also potential tenants. The detail on this building is some of the most exquisite art-deco ornament ever created in New York. There is a band of stylized terra-cotta with curving and angular leaflike forms not unlike those on Ferrobrandt's Cheney Silk Company doors. There is a frieze over the storefronts that was meant both to entertain and to educate. It depicts the theory of evolution. The frieze starts with amoebae and then, as you move along, the amoebae become jellyfish, the jellyfish become fish, the fish become geese, and yet there it stops. At that point, the theory became too controversial. 

There are also dynamic storefronts covered with zigzag patterns. This design has come to be probably the most popular ornamental detail that people are familiar with from art-deco buildings. But one of the interesting things about the use of this pattern on such buildings is that the zigzag almost never appears by itself. The angular, geometric, mechanical zigzag is almost always overlaid with ornate, curving flower petals. This combination of the mechanical and the natural overlaying each other creates a very complex iconography on these buildings. 


The lobbies of this building are among the most interesting in the city. They tell a story about New York as the city of opportunity. And the city of opportunity was Irwin Chanin's life. Chanin was a poor immigrant who was able to find success in New York because it offered him abundant opportunity. He became one of its great developers and believed there was opportunity for all in both intellectual and physical pursuits. With its two main lobbies, one dedicated to each type of pursuit, the Chanin articulates these beliefs. Both lobbies also house a stylized figure that represents some aspect of either the intellectual or the physical life. And below each figure is a bronze grille that represents this same force in an abstracted way. So you see a figure striding forward atop its abstraction below. This is probably the first use of abstract ornament in an American building. Chanin designed it with the assistance of the artist René Chambellan, who specialized in architectural sculpture and was very popular in 1920s New York. The plaster figures have this kind of stylized, almost hyper masculine form and they are somewhat cubist in detail. It was a style that was very popular in the 1920s and the early 1930s. You can see the impact of European modernism on these sculptures. And so in each one of these lobbies, there are four of these groupings—four physical pursuits and four intellectual pursuits. 

Then you walk into the main lobby and find beautiful elevator doors that use the same geese motif used outside. You could take one of the elevators all the way up to the top floor, to Chanin's office. But before you entered the office, you had to pass through a pair of bronze gates that were every bit as much a part of the building's story. The gates represented the greatness of the city, with its art and commerce and its tremendous dynamism. You notice their gears, which signify the industrial prominence of a great city like New York. And, at the top, in the center, you see a violin that splits in half, indicating the cultural life of the city. Then you spot these very dynamic bolts that shoot through, indicating the city's dynamism. Or perhaps you might interpret them as representing New York, the communication empire. Note, though, that none of this would have been possible without a great deal of money and so these gates rest on piles of gold coins. So he designed these gates to sum up for you what the city was all about, before you entered his private offices, which were also elaborately designed with art-deco details. 

Andrew Dolkart